With the Sweet 16 teams firmly in place after the NCAA Tournament’s opening rounds, the drama takes a pause for a few days before ratcheting back up on Thursday. In the Midwest Region, that means there are four teams left with a chance to advance to the Final Four.
Before discussing what lies ahead, let’s take a quick look back at some of the outstanding performances that will soon fade away as the tournament churns forward.
In the round of 64, the top two seeds Kentucky and Kansas easily dispatched Hampton and New Mexico State, but the rest of the region was literally up for grabs. Cincinnati beat Purdue by one point in overtime, but the game was mired by enough bricks tossed around to build the recently unemployed cook at the Oklahoma University SAE house a McMansion. It was the Chinese Water Torture of all overtime tourney games, but noteworthy because you knew the winner would test unbeaten Kentucky with a physical, brawling style.
Bobby Hurley’s Buffalo team gave West Virginia all they could handle before losing 68-62, Maryland squeaked by Valparaiso 65-62 thanks to freshman point guard Melo Trimble’s outstanding 14-point, 10-rebound, three-assist and two-steal performance, and the Butler Bulldogs used a 12-3 surge in the game’s final two moments to defeat Texas 56-48.
Few players put on a better individual performance than Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, who scored 27 points to go along with four assists, two rebounds, two steals and a masterful floor game in the Shockers’ 81-76 win over Indiana. Lost in the sauce of the Hoosiers’ early exit was the exceptional play of their own diminutive but rugged floor general Yogi Ferrell, who led Indiana with 24 points while going 4-for-6 from deep.
The region’s best game in the round of 64 was Notre Dame’s narrow escape from the surprisingly tough Northeastern Huskies, who made the most of their first appearance in the Big Dance in 23 years. Northeastern out-rebounded the Fighting Irish 13-2 on the offensive glass, and 33-17 overall. The game was not decided until the final three seconds, when Zach Auguste’s free throws clinched a nail-biting 69-65 victory for Notre Dame. Auguste saved his best game of the season for his first game of the tournament, saving the Fighting Irish’s season in the process with his 25 points while converting 10 of his 14 shot attempts.
In the Round of 32, Kentucky, West Virginia and Notre Dame punched their tickets to the Sweet 16 with wins over Cincinnati, Maryland and Butler, but the heavyweight title fight of the round was reserved for Wichita State against Kansas. The Shockers have long complained that the state’s glamour school has refused to schedule them for years, so it was only fitting that the tournament gods saw fit to make it happen.
Wichita State could never match Kansas' history as a basketball blue-blood, but they have a legitimate claim to being the state’s best program over the last few years. Two years ago, Wichita dusted off heavy favorites Ohio State and Gonzaga to crash the Final Four, where they gave Louisville, the eventual national champion, all they could handle. Last year, they went 35-0 and earned a No. 1 seed before falling to Kentucky in the round of 32 in the tournament.
If you’ve watched both of these teams play this year, you would have known to ignore the seeding, that Kansas, with its youth, inexperience and the inconsistencies that have plagued them all year, along with the loss of celebrated freshman center Cliff Alexander while the NCAA looks into improper benefits his family in Chicago might have received, was not nearly as a good a team as Wichita State.
The Shockers have almost every element that you look for in a team that has the potential to reach the Final Four: an outstanding, experienced, fearless and explosive collection of guards in VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton. All of their guards are playmakers, each capable of scoring 25 on any given night. They also play tough team defense and play each possession on both ends of the court with a determined and choreographed cohesion.
If you heard people describe Wichita State’s 78-65 dismantling of Kansas as shocking, well they just don’t know much about, nor watch a lot of college basketball. The Jayhawks’ No. 2 seed in the region was flimsier than a Canal Street Gucci bag.
VanVleet again proved that he is one of the best and most underappreciated point guards in America, dissecting Kansas with a spectacular yet understated 17-point, six-assist, six-rebound and four-steal performance. His ball pressure rattled Kansas’ guards all afternoon, never allowing them to get into a comfortable offensive rhythm.
The four teams remaining in the Midwest Region may be headlined by the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats, but don’t assume that they’ll walk through this region with ease. West Virginia’s pressure defense will cause the Wildcats’ Harrison twins fits, neither of whom is as delectable a floor general like their dynamic freshman teammate Tyler Ulis.
Look for Ulis to be Kentucky's primary ballhandler against the Mountaineers. The game within the game of how he handles a pressing defense that wreaks havoc will provide a wonderful look at a true point guard, a kid advanced way beyond his years in the understanding of the floor game. Ulis orchestrates and distributes flawlessly, and should shine brightly in the face of a defense that aims to coerce and hassle the Wildcat offense to the point of extreme disruption.
For Notre Dame to defeat Wichita State, they will have to dominate in the paint and Zach Auguste must replicate his dominant performance against Northeastern, as opposed to the seven-point, four-turnover dud he delivered in the Fighting Irish’s overtime win against Butler in the Round of 32.
In terms of backcourt matchups, it doesn’t get any more delicious that Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant and Demetrious Jackson, along with their sharp-shooters Steve Vasturia and Pat Connaughton, knuckling up with VanVleet, Baker and Cotton.
How ironic would it be for Wichita State and Kentucky to advance and meet in the Elite Eight? Kentucky ruined Wichita’s perfect, undefeated season last year. The Shockers would love to return the favor this year.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Of all of the regions, the Midwest will be the most anticipated and talked about, because while Kentucky is looking to make history, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Wichita State will all give their best effort to put an end to it.